If a Florida developer and electric utility Florida Power & Light have their way, 17,000 acres of undeveloped ranch land in Southwest Florida near Fort Myers will be transformed within a few years, into what the entities plan to be the world’s first solar-powered city.
In April 2009, real estate developer Kitson & Partners in Palm Beach Gardens, FL, announced a joint agreement with Florida Power & Light (FPL) to attain that goal through the construction of a 75-MW solar photovoltaic power plant. "We're very excited about that, because it really talks about sustainability and what we’re trying to accomplish as we go forward," says Syd Kitson, chairman and CEO of Kitson & Partners.
If successful, the project would propel forward the idea that an increasing number of communities can use sustainable energy as distributed energy.
Kitson says it's the goal of his firm to build sustainability "from the ground up."
"You can do those things from the beginning, and it's not as costly as retrofitting," he adds.
The Florida project does, however, face some challenges to Kitson & Partners and FPL meeting their respective goals. There are two separate issues at stake in this alliance to create the world's first solar-powered city: the commercial success of the development and the political success of FPL's plans. The $2-billion Babcock Ranch project comes at a time when the real estate market continues to struggle.
In April 2009, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that the real estate venture was "struggling." Kitson himself has conceded this has not been the best timing for selling homes and commercial sites. But he believes the development will appeal to companies attracted to the renewable energy sector and consumers who embrace the idea, as well as add 20,000 jobs to the state, to support the creation of a sustainable community tied in to clean energy. The political challenge: The project is still characterized as being in the "planning" stages as it awaits the stamp of approval from the Florida Legislature, which was not expected to take up the issue until Spring 2010.
"FPL is extremely excited to build one of the world’s largest solar photovoltaic projects once the state legislative and regulatory authorities have taken the actions that are required for us to move forward," says FPL spokesman Neil Nissan.
Babcock Ranch has donated 400 acres of property to FPL solely for the construction and operation of the solar photovoltaic facility, he says.
"FPL has secured the necessary land, local zoning, and transmission access for the 75-megawatt project and could move forward with construction quickly, pending the legislative and regulatory approvals," he says. "Additionally, FPL will have a long-term presence in Babcock Ranch with the potential to develop and deploy innovative energy technologies, such as additional future solar applications, smart grid development, and energy-efficient homes and businesses."
At the time FPL and Kitson & Partners made their joint announcement regarding the project, the projected cost of the solar photovoltaic power plant was at $350 million, which was expected to add 31 cents to the average customer's monthly bill. FPL has told the media that—pending approval—the construction of the solar photovoltaic power plant will continue, irrespective of the status of the success of Babcock Ranch.
The project has already met and overcome hurdles. Kitson & Partners settled a legal challenge brought forth by the Sierra Club, by agreeing to minimize the impacts on the North Babcock Conservation Area by eliminating planned dwellings and permitting an eco-tourism lodge, an education and research center, equestrian amenities, and permitting limited agricultural uses on the North Babcock Conservation Area. Additionally, Kitson & Partners agreed to provide grants for environmental studies, fund an onsite recycling center, and use technology to reduce water consumption and other environmental impacts.
Kitson says he and his team had always desired to create a sustainable community and were pleased when the opportunity presented itself through Babcock Ranch. "We were looking for an opportunity to create a new community, not necessarily the size of Babcock Ranch, but certainly one we could develop and design from the beginning in an appropriate way, one that was environmentally sensitive," he says. "We were very fortunate that this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came along."
In 2005, Kitson & Partners purchased 91,000 acres of ranch property from the Babcock family in Southwest Florida near Fort Myers. Although the family had many offers from throughout the world, the most attractive one came from Kitson & Partners.
"We came in, and we said, 'We propose to do something different. We want to preserve as much of the ranch as possible and, in addition to that, to create a new truly sustainable city,'" says Kitson. "This was back in 2005 when there weren't a lot of people using sustainable energy, and green wasn’t as popular to talk about as it is today."
After purchasing the 91,000 acres, Kitson & Partners sold 73,000 acres to the state of Florida for a preserve. The remaining acreage is devoted to development, with plans calling for 19,500 homes and 16,000 square feet of retail and office space. Commercial buildings at Babcock Ranch will be fitted with rooftop solar panels and send solar power back into the Florida electrical grid. The city is planned to operate throughout the day on solar power, while relying on conventional power sources in the evening. Plug-in stations will be scattered throughout the community for charging hybrid vehicles.
Alternative energy as onsite power generation is critical, says Kitson. But how it gets established is a regional consideration, he adds.
"Solar might work here, but it might not work somewhere else," he says. "You need to find that energy source in the location that’s best for that region."
Permits for various aspects of the development were being finalized in late 2009. The anticipated 20,000 jobs created through the development are expected to be available in construction, engineering, research, manufacturing, and other green sectors.
"With those jobs in the renewable energy sector, we believe we’ll be able to get started putting up homes," says Kitson. "To build and hope they will come is no longer a strategy."
After the Florida Legislature voted to buy 73,000 acres of the ranch for preservation in July 2006, Kitson & Partners returned to the state to create an independent special district. Its creation not only ensures a way to manage the community, but provide infrastructure financing as well, notes Kitson.
Kitson says he's "very hopeful" the Florida Legislature will pass the energy legislation necessary to construct the power-generating facility.
"FPL is still going forward with the permitting and getting ready to go in anticipation of that," says Kitson. "Hopefully, they could be building the solar as soon as the second quarter of 2010."
Kitson points out there are many elements involved in creating a sustainable city. "First, there’s negotiating a comprehensive deal with FPL to create this, which allows them first to build that 75 megawatts, which is photovoltaic and is very clean energy with no byproducts.
"There are only really three that do not create any byproducts: solar, wind, and geothermal," he adds. "We've got solar here in the ‘Sunshine State,' so it would be perfect. That location is one of the best in the state—it has one of the best ratios of sunshine and space, so that's a benefit also."
The sustainability project transcends building a photovoltaic facility, says Kitson. "Florida Power & Light also is implementing smart grid technology throughout the entire community," he says.
"We'll get others involved, too, but right now FPL is taking the lead on that with the smart metering and making sure these homes are energy-efficient with the appliances."
Kitson points out that energy efficiency is as important as creating renewable energy. "We're trying to combine those two elements and are talking about how these homes need to be inside, how they're built, and what we’re going to require the builders to do," he says.
Much of how the community will be built is required anyway, through green building standards, Kitson says.
"When we first started talking about having energy-efficient homes, there were many things we wanted to do that are above and beyond," he says. "The good news is almost all of these things that require homes to be energy-efficient are starting to become standard."
FPL's provision of solar kiosks throughout the community will make it more convenient for people to own electric cars, says Kitson. "That's very important to us, because, as time goes on, we're going to see more electric cars on the road, but in order for it to be marketable, we need to see it be convenient to the consumer.
"For now, it's much easier to pull up to a gas station and fill up," he says. "We’ve got to make sure, if people are going shopping or to work, that they can plug in and make sure they're fully charged. The solar kiosks are going to be a big part of making it convenient."
That same consumer confidence translates into rooftop solar power, Kitson explains. "FPL will provide rooftop solar on the commercial buildings, but when you talk about the consumer and using solar on homes, you have to simplify it.
"When a consumer wants to put solar on their house, they don't understand the cost, the tax breaks, how it works, is it safe, are there problems with the wind, what are the choices," he says. "It's hard for people to get their arms around, and what FPL is going to do is simplify that process for the consumer if they choose to put solar panels on their house or use the solar tiles, so they can make intelligent choices."
To create a sustainable community means it must be developed to be consumer-friendly, says Kitson. "Otherwise, this whole thing won’t work," he points out.
He adds that the community must be built to attract a full spectrum of people through a full stratification of pricing and products. "It needs to be a multi-generational type of community with people who want a walkable downtown—the way things used to be, except with all of the modern technologies. I think coming out of this economic downturn, a lot of people want to live this way in a community more conveniently located to services, so they don’t have to drive their cars."
Babcock Ranches will include an education system, a medical facility, affordable housing, and the latest transportation technology, says Kitson.
The "Sunshine State" is also a frequent victim to hurricanes. Those embracing solar panel technology are seeking confidence that the panels can withstand hurricane-force winds.
"Hurricane preparedness is something we're spending a lot of time on, making sure these homes are safe," says Kitson. "In creating a sustainable community, energy is one part, but a whole group of things need to happen.
"When you're building a community like this from the beginning and not retrofitting, you can create solar panels that are safe and hurricane-resistant" he says. "We are well positioned to make sure that’s the case."
There is no getting around the need for obtaining backup power from the grid if a hurricane should knock out power for a considerable amount of time, says Kitson. "We'll be pretty much the same as everybody else, unless we can perfect that solar energy storage. An example of something we hope will become almost commonplace in our community is if you have an electric car and that car is charged and hooked to your house and the lights go out, it can reverse itself, and the car can provide power to the house.
"There are a lot of things we think can be helpful in a storm and in a hurricane situation, where hopefully people will be able to stay in their homes and not have to evacuate to find shelter,” he adds.
Babcock Ranch is being billed as a "living laboratory" for a clean economy. As such, laboratory implies experimentation. "We want it to be 'lessons learned,' and we want people, companies, and organizations to have a place where they can implement technologies," says Kitson. "We have a blank sheet of paper where we can accommodate that to see in the real world how those things work, whether it be battery storage or other types of energy-saving devices.
"We want them to come to Babcock Ranch and implement them," he continues. "There will be some failures, but hopefully most of them will be positive and things that we can grow from."
"Some of that experimentation revolves around energy storage. "We think it would be a big breakthrough if we could find a way to do that," says Kitson. "Even the integration of technology will be groundbreaking. A lot of people talk about ‘smart’ homes. We could have an entire community that's wired. We're talking to a number of companies to make that a reality."
A decade from now, communities, such as Babcock Ranch, will be emerging throughout the country, based on the experimentation beginning now with such developments, says Kitson. "For the longest time in our country, everything was based on the price of oil," he says. "When the price went up, everybody was screaming for energy-efficient cars, heating, and everything. Then the price would come down, and that was just a distant memory.
"Now, people look at it differently," he adds. "It’s more of a moral obligation. Intuitively, I believe our dependence on foreign oil is a bad thing. Whether you believe in climate change or not, it almost doesn't matter. I think people know that polluting our atmosphere is not good, period. I think there’s a true shift. It's not just a fad. I think people really want to make a difference and want these things to change."
He adds: "If we can prove that this works, the benefit is that somebody who’s building another community in the future will say, 'Let's do the same thing here."
"If you have a power company that says, 'Let's make that work,' then they are able to do it," continues Kitson. "Babcock Ranch will be great for our country and our energy needs. I think this is something that can and should be replicated."
The green economy will mean training workers to develop the expertise needed to construct, install, and operate sustainable technologies, such as that at Babcock Ranch, Kitson points out.
"What's important is that our universities start to teach the curriculum for these types of jobs and this expertise," he says. "The workforce needs to be educated. One of the great benefits to renewable energy is we’re creating new jobs for people—jobs that could be around for a long time."
FPL's spokesman agrees. "We believe large-scale solar projects like Babcock Ranch can yield significant environmental benefits to the people of Florida, create sustainable job growth, and stimulate the local economy," says Nissan.
"With the continued support of Governor Charlie Crist, the Florida Legislature, and the Public Service Commission, FPL is prepared to do much more in the coming years to build projects like Babcock Ranch and grow Florida’s renewable energy industry."